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The Lowry’s artist development programme: ‘We take a long-term approach so artists will continue to realise their potential’

Members of the Lowry's artist development showcase. Photo: Sam Ryley

For 10 years, the Lowry in Salford has been championing artists through its artist development programme. From simple gestures, such as free rehearsal space, to profound relationships with companies lasting many years, artist development is at the very heart of the Lowry’s artistic identity.

Claire Symonds, senior producer for artist development, explains: “Our whole ethos is that it’s better to support artists than to support the shows that they’re making. That way we can be supporting them to develop sustainable careers.

“We’re trying to make real change with these artists, and real change takes real time. That usually means a year or more for us to really understand what they’re trying to learn and how we’re best able to help them.”

There are four strands to the programme. The Artist Network is open to all early and mid-career artists, and offers free mentoring, masterclasses and rehearsal space, as well as a fortnightly mail-out containing opportunities and commissions. “It’s a light touch, take-what-you-need programme,” says Symonds. “There are about 750 artists in the programme at the moment, and some will engage with us more than others.”

The Class Of strand is an annual cohort, this year involving 11 artists and one company. They each receive a monthly training session alongside masterclasses to help understand how the industry works, with topics ranging from well-being, to building a social media brand with integrity, to negotiating rates. Applications for Class Of 2021 open in the spring.

Developed With is the Lowry’s longest-running, flagship scheme. Six artists and companies, from different art forms, are given a place each year, and each one will receive a 12-month package of both production-focused and professional development support. That includes commissioning cash, a full technically supported production week, premiere performances, and a marketing and PR campaign.

But alongside that is a separate professional development budget. “We look at where they are now in their practice, and what they need to learn now to support them in where they want to be in five years’ time,” says Symonds.

It involves having meaningful conversations with the artists, and boiling them down into very clear objectives that go into a learning plan for the year ahead.

“The joy of it is that it’s completely different for every company. It might be that a company comes in and says: ‘I want to collaborate with visual artists but I don’t know where to start’, or: ‘We’ve just become parents, how are we going to be able to keep making work now that our lives have changed?’ It’s very bespoke.”

The final strand is the Associate Artist programme, which is about in-depth, long-term relationships between the Lowry and the artist. Current associates include the hugely successful companies Kill the Beast, Lung, Art With Heart and Colour the Clouds. “It’s about really significant changes for those companies, helping them build their profile in a really exciting way,” says Symonds.

“We’ve done this long enough now to see the questions these companies are answering through our programme being enacted in the production they make next, and the one after that. We know that the impact of our programme can be seen throughout their career in the next few years. It’s deep and it’s long-lasting.”

Exterior of the Lowry

Symonds gives the example of Igor and Moreno, a dance company that wanted to create a show with a strong visual-art feel to it. “We thought it was very exciting, so we said: ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if visual art audiences saw your work?’”

The Lowry cross-marketed to visual-arts audiences and gave Igor and Moreno a residency in an art space, then later opened an immersive art installation in the Lowry’s gallery.

“We’re a multi art-form venue, and we have these deep relationships that allow people to go off on tangents, make something, and come back with questions that we answer together,” says Symonds. “Now we’ve ended up in this position where Igor and Moreno can inhabit the Lowry by premiering a new piece, alongside a visual-arts residency in the gallery, and staging their previous show in the studio.”

Symonds also points to theatre company Kill the Beast, which made its first show as part of the Developed With strand. The company was invited to become associate artists and over the following years the Lowry supported it in various ways, including training and providing a technician for a complicated show involving front-and-back projection, and giving money to invest in podcast equipment.

When the Lowry then invited the company to make a Christmas show, “they had a really big chat about it, and came back to say: ‘That’s a great opportunity but we’re not sure it’s right for us.’ We said: ‘Okay. Let’s talk about what does feel right to you, and see how we can help you do that instead.’

“This turned out to be their fourth show, Director’s Cut, which has been a massive success for them. Those conversations also got the artists thinking about ambitions they had for projects that might sit outside Kill the Beast. We said: ‘We believe in you as artists, whatever you make. Let us know how we can help.'”

The Director’s Cut review at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh – ‘majestically daft and incredibly funny’

For three members of Kill the Beast, that ambition was to make a musical. The Lowry provided seed funding, scratch performances and eventually co-commissioned what became the Second World War spy musical Operation Mincemeat, which had a hugely popular run at New Diorama Theatre earlier this year and is set to return next year.

“Success, for us, is when an artist is able to make a piece of work that allows them to reach their artistic potential right now, but they are also thinking about what making this piece of work means in the context of a long career: where do they fit in the industry? Where do they want to be? What do we need to do to get there? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How do we play to their strengths and find support for their weaknesses?

“We take a long-term approach so that they will still be making work in 10 years’ time. That, for me, is success. That’s why we put the time in.”

So far, through the Developed With and Associate Artist programmes, the Lowry has commissioned 58 touring productions. Symonds promises there are many more to come. “We’re always open to artists and companies getting in touch with us and saying” ‘This is where we’re at, we’d love to talk to you about it.’”


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